Center for Studies in Demography and Ecology

CSDE Fellow/Alumni Presentations

Bacon Versus Brocoli: A Nuanced Look at the Contradictory Research on the Health Effects of Omniverious Versus Plant-Based Diets

Hilary Bethancourt, Department of Anthropology, University of Washington

12:30-1:30 PM PT
121 Raitt Hall

Though it is widely recognized that diet and nutrition play pivotal roles in health and disease processes throughout the life course, there is limited agreement on what constitutes an optimal, health-promoting diet. A particularly contentious topic in the diet and nutrition realm revolves around the effect of meat and animal fat on cardiovascular and metabolic health, but the current debates on this topic cannot be adequately addressed without answering some important cross-disciplinary questions. For example, why, despite strong anthropological evidence that humans evolved to be meat-eating omnivores, do epidemiological studies seem to suggest that, at least in industrialized settings, vegetarians and vegans tend to experience lower rates of morbidity and mortality than omnivores? How valid are conventional nutritional recommendations to reduce fat, avoid red meat, and consume ample amounts of grains given evidence of superior cardiometabolic health among extant hunter-gatherer populations and improved cardiometabolic health observed in clinical trials in which participants are instructed to follow diets modeled off of hunter-gather consumption patterns? And in general, why is the data on the health effects of any given dietary pattern, food, or macronutrient density so inconsistent across studies and populations?

In an attempt to address some of these questions, Hilary Bethancourt, a current PhD candidate in biocultural anthropology, pursued a dissertation research project that explored the nutritional variation of periodic plant-based diets practiced by Orthodox Christians in the United States during Lent (the 48 days preceding Easter) and concurrent changes in biomarkers of cardiovascular and metabolic health. She will discuss some of her research findings while also highlighting some of the many methodological issues that limit the strength and/or validity of conclusions made from existing research on diet, nutrition, and disease. Hilary hopes researchers from a wide range of disciplines will join and contribute to this interactive conversation on how we might improve upon methods of dietary assessment, evaluation of health status, and statistical modeling of diet-disease relationships in order to address competing perspectives on which foods should or can be included in a healthy diet aimed at preventing or managing nutrition-related noncommunicable diseases.

Hilary Bethancourt is currently pursuing a PhD in biocultural anthropology with a focus on medical and nutritional anthropology at the University of Washington. She has also received a master’s degree in biocultural anthropology and a master’s of public health degree in epidemiology at the University of Washington. Her research interests throughout her graduate studies have been focused on gaining a more comprehensive, interdisciplinary perspective on how human evolutionary history, biology, ecology, and culture have influenced dietary and lifestyle behaviors and growth, development, health, and aging patterns within and across human populations. Hilary’s aim of gaining a better understanding of the complex relationships between diet or lifestyle factors and health throughout the life course is driven by the goal of helping to find more effective, accessible, and cost-effective ways of preventing and managing chronic, degenerative diseases and maintaining health and functionality throughout the aging process.